Last week I wrote about some things to watch for as fastpitch softball made its return to the Olympic stage. If you haven’t read it already you may want to follow the link above and give it a look as it is both insightful and brilliant. Or at least marginally interesting.
Now that the tournament is finished I thought it might be a good idea to see what takeaways we might draw from what actually occurred while it was going on. There are definitely some lessons to be learned.
SPOILER ALERT: This post will refer to outcomes, so if you’re one of the few softball fanatics who have not watched the games and are trying to keep yourself from learning who won until you do, you may want to do that first – or explore other posts here on the blog.
Nice to see softball back in the Olympics
Let’s start with the obvious. After a 13 year absence it was great to see fastpitch softball back in the Olympics in any form.
The Olympic games draw a LOT of eyes and are considered to be a major international event. Yes, you have the Pan Am Games and the World Cup of Softball, but those are essentially “in the family” events. IOW, only softball people are interested in them.
The Olympics, on the other hand, allow people who have no real interest in softball to randomly stumble across them. This is also helped by the fact that they appear on a major network (in this case NBC), even though in reality the games were on offshoot networks rather than NBC proper.
Plus the Olympics have built-prestige of their own despite all the problems and scandals of recent years. It’s great for popularizing the sport and exposing it to new potential fans. Lots of good things about it.
The tournament format was awful
Really? Five pool play games and then you go straight to the Gold and Bronze Medal games?
I would expect more from a local rec league tournament.
Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows a game can turn on a single hit, a bad bounce, a single throwing error, an umpire’s call, etc. At the highest level the margins are even more razor-thin.
Take the U.S. v Australia game. It was won by one fortunate, well-timed hit by the U.S. It could have easily gone the other way.
We also know teams can bounce back from a bad or unfortunate game to come back and take it all.
It should have been a double elimination tournament. I’m sure there were financial reasons it wasn’t, but the format they had made it look like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just caved to pressure and let it in with the minimal effort possible. Softball was the red-headed stepchild of these Olympics.
This is further evidenced by the fact that half of the pool play occurred BEFORE the opening ceremonies, which most people consider to be the beginning of the Olympics. Which means they were less likely to stumble into the games on TV.
If you wanted to “prove” that not enough people are interested in softball to include it in the future, this was the way to do it.
The U.S. Team’s Offensive Plan Was Poor
If the goal was to prove that softball is an international sport and the U.S. doesn’t dominate it anymore, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to put together a team and a game plan to keep U.S. scoring to the minimum required to get into the Gold Medal game, then well done.
Yes, I realize the pitching is the best in the world (at least in theory), and great pitching beats great hitting. But other teams didn’t seem to have as much trouble scoring runs against each other.
Yet the U.S. managed a measly nine (9) runs in six (count ’em 6) games, and no more than two (2) in any single game. That’s pathetic.
I’m guessing part of that strategy was to support dominating pitchers with the best defense they could, then count on being able to scratch a couple of runs together to win 1-0 or 2-1. So forget worrying about finding big hitters and just get defensive stars.
The problem with that is it’s not 1996 anymore. Softball players work harder these days at hitting overall, and the bat technology is way better than when the Louisville burgundy bottle bat was THE bat to have. You wouldn’t use that in practice now.
A game can turn on a single swing, and if you get behind by a couple of runs early it can be tough to come back if you don’t have players who can hit the gaps for extra bases. As the U.S. found out in the Gold Medal game.
Then there was the offensive philosophy, which was incredibly predictable. As soon as the U.S. got a runner on first, the next hitter up was required to sacrifice bunt. Every. Stinking. Time.
That meant that a hitter like Jamie Reed, who tripled in the first inning of the Gold Medal game against the worlds best pitcher, spent most of the tournament laying down bunts instead of trying to drive runs in.
Even a fly ball to the fence could have advanced the runner on first as effectively as a bunt, with the added benefit that it might hit the fence or go over, resulting in a better offensive position.
I haven’t seen the stats, but to the best of my recollection the number of runs that were manufactured by sacrifice bunts was zero. In the meantime, the U.S. gave up a whole bunch of outs that might have come in handy later in the game.
Yes, I am prejudiced against the sac bunt anyway, and have been for a long time. It’s a waste in most cases. This just proved the point.
The other downside of being so predictable was that opposing teams, Japan in particular, could just sit on it and use it to their advantage. Like by pulling the corners in and pulling off a double play against a sac bunt.
Keep in mind the U.S. win against Japan in pool play came off a home run. They needed more of that.
Especially since, according to the announcers, Japan has spent the last few years trying to put MORE offensive firepower into their game. If Japan is your Gold Standard (no pun intended) the U.S. may want to look for players who can bang the ball – and then let them do it.
The defense was unreal
In my last post I talked about watching the speed of the game. These games did not disappoint.
The defense across the board was incredible. So many great plays by so many players on all teams. That is an aspect everyone got right.
The whole thing looked like an old timer’s game
Perhaps the oddest thing about these Olympics were how old many of the players were. Especially in the circle.
Monica and Cat for the U.S. are both mid- to late-30s. Yukiko Ueno is 39. Team Canada had several recognizable names from the past. All of them played in the last Olympic games.
It’s almost as if the people in charge felt they owed it to these players to let them play in one more Olympics. Not that they didn’t perform – they did.
But in a sports culture obsessed with youth it’s hard to believe there weren’t younger players who could have done just as well. Have we done such a poor job of training the next generation that the last generation had to step in? Or were they just trying to go with glory names from the past?
The problem with that is you lose the younger audience who didn’t grow up watching Cat and Monica and the others dominate the sport. I think a lot of younger fans want to see the names they’ve been watching in the Women’s College World Series – players they know and can relate to.
In my very informal survey of my students, most did not watch the Olympics. They had little interest. If you can’t get current players to watch the game played at that level how are you going to grow softball as a spectator sport?
From a marketing standpoint it’s time to leave the past behind and start focusing on the future. We apparently have eight years to get it right. Let’s do it.
It was essentially an American tournament
For those who still complain about U.S. dominance of the sport, they do have a point. Despite the different names on the jerseys, many of the players – especially for Italy, Canada and Mexico – were either U.S. citizens or played college ball in the U.S.
I think that was less true for Australia, but I believe they had a few too.
About the only team that wasn’t made in America essentially was Team Japan.
It’s great that more deserving players get an opportunity to play in the Olympics by going with teams representing their heritage instead of where they were born and/or raised. But if softball is going to become a permanent part of the Olympics we need more locally raised players for these teams.
Especially the European teams, because their Olympic Committees hold a lot of sway over how the Olympics are run.
Hopefully softball can generate enough publicity to get girls in these countries interested in playing softball at a high level against each other as well as against U.S. players. I guess we’ll see.
So there you have it – a few of my observations. Now it’s your turn.
Did you watch? If so, what did you think? Leave your observations in the comments below.